Agriculture consumes 70% of all water withdrawals and in turn, is the sector that suffers most from droughts. This explains the great responsibility of production – especially with reasonable levels of water – to feed a growing population and the threats and challenges that it must deal with in the face of a growing shortage of the vital resource.
Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations estimate that 500 thousand cubic metres of water are needed for every tonne of grain harvested, equivalent to 1.5 tonnes of water for every kilogram of grain produced.
One person, the report adds, needs between two and four litres of drinking water a day, whereas it takes almost three thousand litres to produce a person’s daily food.
Industry uses almost 20% of the total amount of water abstracted and domestic use the remaining 10%, with ever increasing competition between the two. However, between 80% and 90% of the water they require is wasted in many ways, which is a key concern as it is a vital and finite resource.
Although 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, only 2.5% of the water available is freshwater and around 70% of it is contained in glaciers. Most of the rest occurs as soil moisture or lies in deep, inaccessible aquifers.
This means that less than 1% of the world’s freshwater resources are available for consumption and it is predicted that a third of countries in regions where water is in high demand could face severe shortages within this century.
Even by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population will live in countries with a moderate or severe water shortage.
Greater shortages lie ahead
The World Water Development Report 2019, “Leaving no one behind”, warns that if the current rate of degradation of the natural environment and unsustainable pressures on global water resources are maintained, 45% of global GDP, 52% of the world population and 40% of grain production will be at risk by 2050.
Global water usage has increased by 1% every year since the 1980s, due to an increasing population, greater socio-economic development and changes in consumption patterns.
This trend is expected to increase at the same rate until 2050, with rises of 20% to 30% above the current level, especially in the industrial and domestic sectors.
More than two billion people live in countries suffering from severe water shortages and around four billion suffer a serious shortage at least one month a year, a phenomenon that is forecasted to grow due to greater demand and increasing effects of climate change.
A study by the FAO, carried out in 93 developing countries, indicates that in several countries where water is scarce, they are already exploiting reserves faster than they can be renewed.
The evaluation indicated that 10 countries are in a critical situation and in order to meet agricultural needs, they are forced to abstract more than 40% of their total renewable water resources and another eight nations more than 20%.
Experts predict a global population increase of between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion by 2050, with two thirds of people living in cities, and warn that, in response, food production must increase by 60% in comparison to 2006 levels.
However, more than half of that population increase will take place in Africa, with around 1.3 billion more people, and Asia, with an increase of 750 million, regions where the highest levels of hunger and poverty are currently concentrated.
The path of destruction is easy to imagine if measures are not taken in time and we do not move with greater certainty towards the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Giving everything for nothing
More than 80% of the world’s farms are family farms of less than two hectares, small farmers who are the main food providers, with contributions exceeding half of agricultural production in many countries.
According to data from the FAO, approximately three quarters of people living in extreme poverty in rural areas and the vast majority of the rural poor are, in fact, small producers suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.
These population groups exploit around 12% of the world’s agricultural land, whilst in low-income economies, it is estimated that approximately a third of agricultural land is exploited.
The risk of hunger is higher in countries with agricultural systems that are highly vulnerable to changes in rainfall, temperature and severe drought. The phenomenon of El Niño stands out in this matter. In 2015-2016, it caused the loss of 50% to 90% of the harvest in the Dry Corridor, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Globally, investments in establishing water infrastructures in rural areas, mainly for irrigation development and energy production, amount to billions of dollars in costs.
Irrigation can help contribute to poverty reduction by increasing labour and land productivity, generating higher incomes and lower food prices.
Experts argue that access to water for agricultural production, even if only for supplementary irrigation, can mean the difference between agriculture as a simple means of survival and agriculture as a reliable source of livelihood. (PL)
(Translated by Rachel Hatt – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos: Pixabay